So it was five years ago, in preparation for my upcoming fortieth birthday, that Alan suggested we take a celebratory trip. He told me to pick anywhere I'd like, he'd make it happen (did I mention I really love this man?). I quickly formed a short list in my head: An Alaskan cruise, a beach resort in the Caribbean, a trip to Ireland, the possibilities were endless! I began to recite my mental list to Alan, "Well, we could go to Ireland, or..." That's as far as I got. Alan jumped-up from the couch excitedly, shouted, "Ireland!" then ran into his office and called Air Lingus. "Or, a cruise..." I shouted after him. It was too late, Alan had Ireland on the brain. I confess, I wasn't complaining.
With all his travel experience, Alan is fantastic at planning trips. I told him I trusted his judgement completely and to just surprise me with the itinerary. He knows I'm not much of a city girl, so Alan decided to skip the Dublin/urban scene and focus instead on the southern countryside towns of Killarney, Dingle, Doolin, Adare, and Tralee, among others. The highlight was to be on the eve of my birthday when he had booked us a room at Ballyseede Castle near Tralee. He told me he wanted me to wake up on my fortieth birthday feeling like royalty. (Seriously, ladies, how in the WORLD did I get so lucky?)
So, we arrived without incident at the Shannon Airport and picked-up our rental car. The drive to our first hotel was a short one, but brilliantly scenic. How can I put this into words? You know how, when you see a postcard or a calendar of "The Beaches of Florida" and they have these beautiful, sandy paradises with setting suns reflecting off calm, glassy waters? You know it's just beautiful and breathtaking, but you also know that just two miles away sits a horrific strip mall with nineteen tacky souvenir shops, all selling the same "Who Farted?" t-shirts and coffee mugs. That beautiful ocean scenery is surrounded by a whole bunch of ugly.
Not so in Ireland. We were just a few feet from the rental car place when we turned the corner and audibly gasped at the scene that greeted us: Rolling green hills, greener than anything I'd ever seen, divided by miles and miles of gray stone walls. We spotted white, long-haired sheep grazing next to cozy, thatched-roof homes. The remains of gorgeous stone castles were everywhere. I took out my camera and started snapping pictures like the paparazzi competing to catch the latest Britney Spears meltdown. "How lucky we are to have captured this beautiful scene," I thought. Then we rounded another bend, and the view was even more awe-inspiring than the previous one. Same went for the next bend, and the next and the next. I put my camera down. I wasn't "capturing" anything. This was actually what Ireland looked like EVERYWHERE! You know that calendar that has twelve months of Irish countryside, castles, cathedrals, and sheep? That's the REAL Ireland! Even Alan, the seasoned traveler, looked around and admitted, "This is the most beautiful place I have ever been!"
We had a fantastic time! Alan planned everything perfectly. We hiked the green hills and gazed at tiny little lambs that were only minutes old, drank Guinness and Harp and listened to hours and hours of jigs and reels played expertly on fiddles, accordions, harps, and flute whistles. It was truly magical.
Then came the eve of my highly-anticipated birthday. We arrived at Ballyseede Castle in the late afternoon and discovered that it was filled with suits of armor and giant crests on the wall. It was everything we had hoped it would be! When we checked-in, a friendly woman handed us our room key and informed us that dinner was served in the dining hall between six and eight o'clock every evening. We made our way up to our room "fit for a king," noticing that there didn't appear to be a whole lot of other guests in the hallways or lobby. In fact, there weren't any at all. No matter, we found our room and, after a brief rest, got ready for my Birthday Castle Celebratory Dinner. We even got dressed-up for the occasion!
We descended the stairs at about seven-ish and found the door marked "Dining Hall" locked. Hmm. There must be another entrance. The door next to it was marked, "Pub." We opened it to a scene that was warm and cozy. We later learned that this room had once been the library/study, but now was serving as a small, intimate bar. We approached the bartender, a middle aged woman with short hair and a kind face. We asked her, "Where's the Dining Hall?" Her warm face dropped as she said, "Oh, dear!"
Apparently, we WERE the only tenants staying at the castle that night, and when the clock hit seven the cook got tired of waiting and just closed-up shop! The bartender, her name was Bernadette, was mortified and apologized profusely. But, this was to be my birthday dinner! We talked about driving into town and eating there, but it was a long ways, and besides, we really wanted to enjoy our one night of royalty! Bernadette graciously offered to heat-up some of their famous mushroom barley soup served with classic Irish brown bread, we reluctantly accepted. I tried to hide my disappointment.
We took our seats at the bar and got our first good look around. The walls sported a bright, wooden paneling that was polished to a brilliant shine. The warm, glowing fireplace was framed with a beautiful hand-carved wooden design, rivaled only by the same handiwork displayed on the large, wooden bar.
At that moment, we also realized we were not alone. At the far end of the L-shaped counter sat three older men, the youngest appearing to be in his late sixties. One sported a navy-blue blazer with a crest on the pocket, the other two wore classic brown wool cable sweaters. All three adorned tweed caps covering tufts of white, curly hair. Two seats down sat a middle-aged man with a hard, pock-marked face and a thick mustache. They stared blankly at us. Clearly, these were local folk and clearly, we had just crashed their weekly private gathering at this peaceful spot. They nodded politely and smiled, we did the same.
Bernadette returned with our soup and bread. Perhaps it was the warm, Celtic atmosphere, but Alan and I took one spoonful of that ambrosia and moaned with pleasure -- it was FANTASTIC! I wonder what dinner would've been like! Sweet Bernadette tried to involve us in the conversation and introduced us to our fellow bar mates. Monty was the name of the mustached chap, she said, and then pointed to the older customers and added, "I just call these gents The Three Wise Men!"
One of The Three Wise Men's brogue was very thick, so Bernadette had to do a lot of interpreting, but apparently the castle was once owned by his very own ancestors. They owned it, that is, until the British took over and kicked his family out! He seemed resigned to it, though, and said he just liked to come back and visit once a week!
As the Guiness flowed, the tension in the room began to melt away. They asked where we were from, we told them we were visiting from Orlando, Florida to celebrate my fortieth birthday. "Your birthday? When's your birthday?" they asked. "In about three hours!" I replied. They raised their pints and drank a toast to my forty years. Then they began asking about our country's politics. This was 2004, and they wanted to know how we planned to vote in the upcoming presidential election. I was floored by how much they knew about our American candidates and their platforms. They proceeded to tell us where JFK's ancestors originated in Ireland, along with several other past U.S. presidents. "You really ARE the Three Wise Men!" I exclaimed! The trio collectively blushed, then beamed with pride!
The hours melted away. At some point, Monty's wife called the bar and wanted to know where he was. He told her we were all having a "grand" time at the pub and she needed to come and join us. She did! We told them all we thought their country was the most beautiful place we had ever been. They waived-away our compliment and told us with sad faces that Ireland was changing. They grieved that it was slowly becoming too commercial and too civilized over the last few years. "The worst thing to happen to Ireland ," Monty proclaimed, "is the Breathalyzer! Used to be a man and his mates could finish off twelve pints and drive thirty miles to Dingle and drink some more. The only worry was remembering where in the hell you parked your car come morning!"
Alan and I eventually grew very tired and reluctantly announced we needed to call it a night and head up to our room. We thanked our bar mates for a lovely, unforgettable evening and headed for the door. Just then, Monty looked at his watch and shouted, "Wait! It's after midnight!" With that, Monty, his wife, Bernadette, and all Three Wise men threw their arms over each other's shoulders and sang "Happy Birthday" in the prettiest, sweetest Irish brogue I've ever heard!
Since returning home, Alan and I have become Irish pub junkies. We can't get enough of cozy, Celtic-themed bars with Guinness on tap and live Irish music. It's not the same as actually being in Ireland, but it helps stir up our memories of that tremendous trip. It's been five years now, and Alan intermittently brings up the idea of returning to that magical Emerald Isle. I must confess, I hesitate to go. I'm worried we've been spoiled. It couldn't possibly be that amazing the second time around. No return trip would ever provide an evening as exceptional as that night I spent in a castle, being serenaded by The Three Wise Men and Monty!
Thanks for reading!!